When Harvey Stewart first went to prison 60 years ago, gasoline was 20 cents a gallon, a postage stamp cost three pennies and Harry Truman was president.Suffice it to say if AP could find nobody currently in an American prison who'd served longer than this fellow, that's a pretty remarkable statement. Imagine the difficulties associated with leaving prison alone in the world at 83 years old! At least they're facilitating some transition stage via a halfway house. I can't fathom what it would be like to enter an alien, new world with no support after so long behind bars. His crimes were committed before President Kennedy was assassinated, before Hawaii was a state, before Sputnik launched, before Kruschev said, "We will bury you" - before Elizabeth II became Queen of England, for heaven's sake.
Now, as perhaps one of the longest-serving inmates in US history, the convicted killer is looking forward to the perks of freedom when he is released on parole in the coming weeks or months.
An IPod or cell phone perhaps? Not for this 83-year-old. Stewart simply wants a root beer and a good meal.
"Imagine that! Sixty years being down in this damn hole," Stewart recently told The Associated Press from the Beto Unit in East Texas, one of his many stops in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. "I wouldn't recommend it. Man's a damn fool to even stick his foot in here."
Stewart, awaiting his release to a halfway house or nursing home after being granted parole earlier this year, recalled his youthful days of robbing brothels in Southeast Texas for quick $3,000 pay days, of getting shot in the back while holding up a junk yard and murdering a man in what he insists was a self-defense killing.
But the six decades in prison haven't been nearly as eventful. He counts among his highlights his brief escape in 1965 and a recurring headache from a prison van wreck a couple years ago. Besides those short-lived respites from monotony, Stewart has served his time isolated from the outside world. He doesn't recall receiving a single visitor in more than a decade. He's outlived most or all his immediate family.
His parole was approved in April, with the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles considering his recent history of good behavior, his age and declining health.
"I'm too damn old to do any robbing," said Stewart, his blond hair now a balding gray brush cut. "I think I am anyway. My old ticker might kick out on me."
Stewart is the longest-serving inmate among the 155,000 prisoners in the Texas system, though it's unclear if he is the nation's longest-serving inmate now or ever. Prison officials and historians say they're unaware of any agency or organization that keeps track of all inmates' jail time.
Now that Texas has hundreds of inmates serving life without parole sentences (an option only available since 2005), our grandkids will see prisoners serving longer sentences, even, than Mr. Stewart. These prisoners will stay in that "damn hole" until they die, but, does that really make sense? Does anybody think Texas would be safer keeping Stewart and other so-called "lifers" in prison to the bitter end? The biggest complicating factor from LWOP is who pays for end-of-life care: Parole elderly offenders and the federal government picks up most of the tab via Medicaid and Medicare. Keep them in prison and their end-of-life care is paid for out of state general revenue funds, except the Legislature didn't allocate enough.
Without knowing the details, it seems that young Mr. Stewart at 23 was a dangerous man traveling a bad road. But did Mr. Stewart at 65, 70, 80 years of age, pose the same threat? What do you think? Would justice have been better or worse served if he'd been released a decade or so ago when he still had family alive? Would the price of his atonement have seemed any less devastating? Would the public be any less safe?